Christians hit theological rift on Mideast policy

Having watched TV coverage of Palestinians scaling walls to get to work and enduring beatings at the hands of Israeli soldiers, Lois Gode felt a Christian calling this spring to go explore prospects for leading tours where Israeli F-16s had been dropping bombs by night.

"I'm a person who cannot stand injustice," says Ms. Gode, a Benton City, Mo. homemaker. "All this has to do with greed and taking land away from people by whatever means they can get it."

At the same time this spring, other Christians from the American heartland were at the Sea of Galilee singing in four-part harmony at the enshrined site where Jesus delivered his Sermon on the Mount. Though these bearded men and head-covered women share Gode's faith, they had braved an environment of daily suicide bombings to answer a contrary calling: encourage Israel in an hour of need.

"Jerusalem is suffering," says Galen Bowman of Old German Baptist Brethren Church in Belkite, Ind. "We're trying to help out. We need to support Israel" as visitors, he says, because Israel is God's way of preparing the Messiah's return.

As war in the Holy Land rages on, American Christians claim a greater stake in the situation as they strive to understand dynamics behind the news and to take moral stands. But the more informed they get, the more they part company along perennial fault lines of biblical interpretation and the role of politics in faithfulness. They feel increasingly invested in the conflict as denominational leaders frame it in moral and theological terms. For example:

• On April 30, leaders of two major denominations and the National Council of Churches said a "just resolution" requires Israel to end settlements and military occupation of Palestinian territories.

• On May 1, Southern Baptist theologians gathered to discuss how Israel's current struggle might be fulfilling biblical prophecy as God's project to regather the Jews in Zion and prepare the Messiah's return.

• This month, Zion's Herald magazine of Christian opinion is printing extra editions of its current issue on the Mideast, anticipating demand for it as congregational study guides.

• Middle East conflict experts at the Society for Biblical Studies (SBS) in Arlington, Mass., are making presentations once a week – up from once a quarter two years ago.

Formerly disinterested Christians "have been shocked into awareness of what's happening over there," says Peter Miano, of SBS. "We are saturated with information, but we're lacking understanding. That's what people are wanting."

"I don't think anything since Vietnam or apartheid has had the impact [in Christian communities] that this is having," says Stephen Swecker, editor of Zion's Herald. "It hits very close to the heart when you see ... the Church of the Nativity under siege and sniper fire lighting up the site where Jesus was born."

When Holy Land tours started getting cancelled inautumn 2000 due to safety concerns, Christians began to probe behind the headlines to know more, says Christianity Today deputy managing editor, Timothy Morgan. But, he says, as the conflict dominated news this year, and Christians recalled their duty "to be reconciled with God and with one another, there was a tremendous sadness over the loss of life."

Now, engaged Christians take sides largely according to one of two perspectives. One is that faithfulness equals pursuit of justice by ending Israel's occupation and settlement of Palestinian territories. The other is that being faithful means supporting Israel to honor God's prophecy as stated in Ezekiel 37:21: "I will take the people of Israel from the nations among which they have gone, and will gather them from every quarter, and bring them to their own land."

How Ezekiel and other apocalyptic literature is understood isn't the only question for agonizing Christians, but it is key, says Gordon College professor Ted Hildebrandt. "Do you read it like a newspaper? Or do you read it like 'Pilgrim's Progress'?" he asks. "A lot of times people are born into one tradition or the other, but what we need to be asking is, 'What is justice? What would Jesus do?' "

Massachusetts Episcopalians, are an example of how people of the same faith can agree on a duty to advance justice abroad, but they split over what that means for Israel.

"I think people [in my congregation] recognize the weight of the moral mandate is with the Palestinians, simply because they are occupied and oppressed," says the Rev. Richard Signore of Bourne, Mass. "Some lay people say it's too complex and we should leave it to the experts, but I don't accept that. To me, this really is an issue of moral imperative for a people to have self-determination."

He concurs with the three Episcopal bishops who drew national attention in October by picketing the Israeli consulate in Boston. But others in his diocese feel a new calling to profess the opposite.

Dennis Hale had no interest in church life beyond serving as parish treasurer, he says, until the bishops' outspokenness inspired his counter-cause: the Episcopal-Jewish Alliance for Israel, which he founded in March.

"The bishops are not anti-Semites, but I think they are confused about what's going on in Israel," says Mr. Hale, a political scientist at Boston College. Occupation, in his view, is the activity "of a powerful country that has been attacked by its neighbors and has to defend itself.... To say it is simply an injustice that must end is to distort the reality to a point that it doesn't make any sense."

Though Christians have rallied in the past to end slavery, demand civil rights, and dismantle apartheid, many see the Middle East situation as much more difficult to solve.

Perhaps the one area where many Christians agree is to concede that a lasting solution may be out of reach. "This situation transcends the capacity of any local church to respond," says Christianity Today's Mr. Morgan. "You can't just write a check for blankets. That's not the nature of the conflict.... In the 1967 [Six Days War], many Christians saw it as huge confirmation that the Bible is true, prophecy is fulfilled. Here, they're saying, ''maybe peace in the Middle East will never be achieved. And what does that mean for us as peacemakers?' "

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